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In the Shadow of Weinstein Woes: How Boards Should Be Thinking About Sexual Harassment

November 8, 2017

Posted in: WATSON Views

“How should directors respond to the recent high profile cases of sexual harassment cases in the workplace?”

The spectre of bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace has been raised by high profile cases, including that of Jian Ghomeshi at the CBC in Canada, and more recently by the case of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax Films/the Weinstein Company, in the US. And it’s clear the issue is wide spread and crosses all sectors, as evidence by the breadth of response to the #MeToo social media campaign.

Many directors are unaware of the culture within their organizations, and whether employees are truly free from harassment of any kind. In today’s environment, directors who neither understand this issue nor take reasonable steps to ensure their organization’s workplace is safe, could expose the organization and themselves to potential claims.

A recent survey of over 400 directors and venture capitalists conducted in the United States, suggests that Boards are not actively discussing the risks of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. The survey was conducted by Boardlist, which manages a directory of female board members. While relatively narrow in scope and conducted before the Weinstein allegations arose, both the survey and a commentary piece in the Washington Post provide some insight as to why directors had not yet addressed sexual harassment at the Board level. The Washington Post notes that the most common reason given by directors is that they “felt it was not a problem” or that for some, the view that the smaller size of their organization lessens the risk and impact.

From a governance perspective, the current groundswell of sexual harassment cases that are being raised puts into sharp focus the risks of sexual harassment in a workplace and the potential negative impact on the overall organization. Boards should consider whether the risk warrants discussion at the Board level and how well-positioned the organization is with respect to harassment prevention policies. For example:

  • Do directors understand how implementation and compliance with human resource policies is accomplished at the organization?
  • Do directors understand what obligations and liabilities the organization has with regards to providing a safe and harassment free workplace?
  • Do directors generally understand how the harassment policies work (i.e, their application, content and any associated complaint procedures)?
  • Do directors understand their own responsibility to contribute to a safe and respectful environment through their own conduct and actions?
  • Have directors been provided with harassment and discrimination prevention education and training, in addition to staff?
  • Are there mechanisms in place to assess overall workplace health and organizational culture and on which the Board receives regular reports?
  • Are there mechanisms in place for individuals to raise issues of concern (including breaches of harassment policies and other ethical breaches) and how is the Board is made aware of key issues arising?

If Boards have not yet turned their minds to the risks of sexual harassment, the recent groundswell should prompt Board action. In fact, as noted in the Washington Post some organizations are moving from simply asking “what do we need to do” to “what else can be done” to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

The list of areas where directors are expected to be involved is complex and growing, and workplace health safety is one more that should clearly be on every Board’s radar screen.